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A wild ride in Patagonia, Argentina

BY Liz Beatty

13th Mar 2023 Travel Stories

A wild ride in Patagonia, Argentina

An unforgettable all-female horseback ride in northern Patagonia, Argentina, put me on top of the world. The transformative powers of this experience linger with me

Some journeys leave a mark. That was the case with my ride into the last vestiges of authentic gaucho culture in northern Patagonia. Though it’s been more than two years since my trip, the transformative powers of this experience linger with me even now.

Somewhere past the town of Loncopué in western Argentina, the paved road turns to dirt. Another hour beyond that, the car I’m riding in rattles and heaves over what has devolved into a track. Finally, my vehicle and the one following cross a grassy expanse surrounding the Andean mountain Buta Mallin. This tiny outpost in far northern Patagonia is the end of the road for the drivers, but for their women passengers, it’s where the real journey begins.

The guides and team for the horseback ride

With dark locks flowing from beneath her hat brim, 26-year-old guide Lara Simon, who hails from Germany, greets us with a broad smile and a sing-songy “Helloooo.” In contrast, the piercing gaze of head wrangler Alyssa Young evokes 1970s Clint Eastwood—if Eastwood were a 24-year-old woman with long auburn hair. A veteran horsewoman from California, she is Zen, a bit fierce and completely in charge.

Young’s welcome talk is all business: horse care, trail rules, staying hydrated. She then washes in the stream. Despite the scrubbing, it’s clear that it will take weeks back in civilisation before her hard-working hands will look clean. Suddenly, my white shirt feels conspicuously laundered.

It’s time to mount up. Simon double-checks each cinch (the strap that holds the saddle in place). “We have just enough daylight,” says Young, swinging her leg over the sheepskin-covered saddle. The three-hour trail ride is the final leg of a long day that’s drawn us five women to this remote trailhead. One more will arrive tomorrow.

We are from four countries—one Brit, one Australian, two Americans and two Canadians (including me)—and range in age from 30 to 60-something. While it seems most of us feel at home in the saddle, our comfort ends there.

"Experiencing an in-the-bone sense of belonging in such an untamed, rugged landscape, like our guides have, is why I’m here"

Our guides, on the other hand, so clearly belong here, with their worn hats, their veneer of well-earned grime, and their bone-handled knives belted to their hips. They are wholly adapted to these arid, sweeping valleys, free-running horses and springs pouring out of the ground with surprising regularity.

I marvel at Simon as she trots up beside me, a dirty black scarf covering her face against the thick dust kicked up from the horses ahead. She is so loose in the saddle, so at ease in her skin. Experiencing that in-the-bone sense of belonging in such an untamed, rugged landscape is why I’m here.

Wild Women Expeditions, based in Canada, is one of the world’s biggest all-women tour companies, serving a market that grew 230 percent from 2014 to 2020. The average adventure traveller isn’t a 28-year-old triathlete, but more likely a 47-year-old single mother or a baby boomer. In short, someone like me. Many crave adventure that may be hard to tackle solo. They’re drawn to an ethos of environmental stewardship and personal growth. Some see all-women groups as liberating, for all kinds of reasons.

Ranquilco

All-female horse riding expedition team in the Andes of Patagonia, ArgentinaLiz Beatty (second from left) with her fellow riders

Down the final ridge, the setting sun illuminates our dust trail. We begin hearing hoots and cheers coming from our destination on the valley’s far edge. Snaking up to Ranquilco, as the ranch is known, we pass a message carved across the gate: “Enjoy the Creation.”

A welcome party emerges from nearby outbuildings, porches and forest paths. Among them are Lulu Waks and Sylvana Manterola. Waks, who is from California, will lead our pack trip. She’s fit, 30-something and entirely self-possessed. Diminutive Manterola is the daughter of a local gaucho, or horseman. A bull-strong gaucha in her own right, she makes her own knives.

This is our home for the next 36 hours—off the grid and a bit off the wall, a higgle-piggle of stone and wooden architecture extending out from the casa grande. Each room has a wood-fired water heater and a worthy view.

Since Ranquilco was established in 1978, individualists from around the globe have found their way to this more than 40,000-hectare ranch—horticulturists, veterinarians, massage therapists, master masons and chefs. All bring their creative vision to the ranch’s circle of sustainability.

Drinking glasses, someone realized, could be made from the bottom of empty wine bottles (of which there are many). Horseshoes could be reshaped as hinges or to secure support beams cut in the ranch’s own sawmill. Virtually all their food is grown or raised on the property.

And for the most part, it’s eaten on a stone terrace with a long harvest table and yet another impossible view. In the distance, high, arid grasslands, valleys, meadows and jagged peaks extend deep into the heart of the Argentine Andes. No roads, no fence lines.

“This place could not exist without so many hard-working, creative hands,” says Waks, sipping coffee the next morning and surveying the horizon. Her reverence for the community here is palpable, but what she loves most is riding out into this magnificent vista. Tomorrow, we’ll go with her.

The first major descent

Rolo the mule stands compliantly under the towering poplars shading Ranquilco’s main courtyard. Simon, Waks, Manterola and Young are expert packers, balancing the load and securing the cinches. Next, the other mules—Ragnar, Ruby and Roberta—take their loads. Finally, four women guides, six women guests, four mules, and 10 horses head off down Ranquilco’s treed lane. The mules and an extra horse walk free. There are hoots and cheers from the men and women staying behind.

Jen Billock, from Chicago and the only novice rider, is a little nervous about what’s ahead—the first major descent. It’s a narrow scree and boulder-filled slope dropping about 120 metres. A line snakes down the middle. It doesn’t look like a trail. Navigating this is all about trust, letting the hardy native Criollo horses do what they do.

"Navigating a narrow scree and boulder-filled slope, dropping about 120 metres, is all about trust, letting the hardy native Criollo horses do what they do"

Waks and Young offer Billock calm, spare instructions: “Lean back. Give him his head.” That means loosen the reins; let him see where he’s going. There’s no time for pondering. Billock is near the bottom by the time I reach the top edge. Way to go, Jen! I think. Even though I’ve ridden all my life, I had no idea horses could do what we’re doing.

By mid-afternoon, persistent winds blow in cloud cover and eventually thunderheads. Fork lightning strikes with a shuddering bang one valley over. Waks takes her time assessing the situation. “It looks far enough away and is moving in the other direction,” she says finally. “Let’s keep going.”

Later, we muddle through our first evening setting up camp, then peel off hot, dirty riding gear. We lie flat, looking up at clear skies and luxuriating in the sound of the river’s flow.

One gigantic neighbourhood

Rolo the mule in Patagonia, ArgentinaRolo the mule, loaded with supplies

The next morning I find my horse, Angus, where I left him, still tethered. He’s such a handsome black gelding, energetic, or “forward” in horse speak. I enjoy his flashy gaits. But the deeper into this landscape we ride, the deeper grows my affection for the mules. Their labour makes all this possible, but also, they are fascinating characters.

“Heads up—Ragnar coming through!” Young bellows from above. I spin Angus around as Ragnar’s wide load blows by down the hill. At the bottom, the mule falls in line near the front. She won’t let anyone pass.

“It’s just what they do sometimes,” explains Young. “Horses and mules have a clear social hierarchy with horses at the top. But it’s a love-hate thing for mules. They want to be part of the group. But every once in a while, they have to assert themselves with a not-so-gentle reminder, ‘Don’t take me for granted.’”

I wonder if perhaps I was a mule in a previous life.

We follow a canyon trail that opens to a wide plateau. There are peaks to each side and expanses so enormous that the hundreds of angora goats along the river below seem like bleating white ants.

Waks asks if I want to take the lead. I do. For a moment, my gaze fixed straight on, I pretend I’m all alone in this stunning panorama. It might be my favourite stretch of the ride.

As the valley narrows, a gaucho appears, seemingly out of nowhere. With a magnificent grey stallion and a thick moustache under a flat-brimmed hat, Tono looks straight out of central casting. At first, his warmth and familiarity feel surprising in a landscape we thought we had to ourselves. But then I’m reminded of what someone said back at Ranquilco. This is no wilderness; it’s one gigantic neighbourhood.

This meet-up is the Northern Cordillera equivalent of chatting over the back fence. Tono describes a bad fall from his horse. Waks gives him Tylenol. Then he escorts us through a dense thicket and on to where a lightning strike the day before sparked a brush fire. A large swath of charred hillside still smoulders, pretty close to where we’ll camp for the night. Still, he and Waks agree—we’re probably safe.

Deep in the Patagonian Andes

Horseback riding in Patagonia, Argentina on a steep slope
The riders negotiate a steep scree slope

Simon hands me coffee as I pull out tent pegs the next morning. Each day, these rituals get faster, more second nature. Homemade bread is toasting over an open fire—a piece of which I’ll soon smother in a caramel spread called dulce de leche. Soon we’re climbing the valley bowl beyond the vegetation line toward the next pass.

Single file, the descent begins down the massive scree slope to the Desecho Valley floor. My brain struggles to cope with the precipitous drop to my left. Eventually, I look only straight out or up.

At the bottom, we untack the animals and for the first time let them go free. Young insists they will be safe, and happier to tackle what’s coming the next day. Soon Angus, Brian, Bandero and the others, mules included, trot gleefully a good kilometre down the valley. I’m shocked that my control issues aren’t, well, out of control. Instead, it’s liberating to release these wondrous creatures and trust that they will return.

At sunset, we stretch out around the fire. Some of us have washed up in the nearby spring, while others still proudly sport the day’s dust. Manterola passes a dried gourd filled with mate tea. Each of us takes our turn sipping from the metal straw called a bombilla. One by one, we ponder the things in our lives that brought us to this campfire deep in the Patagonian Andes—ten grateful specks under a dazzling starry sky.

"After one last brutal climb, we stand on what feels like the top of the universe"

Young rises early to round up the animals, now many kilometres down the valley. From the elevation of our campsite, I watch this show of horsemanship unfold.

When they’re back, we break camp quickly, tack up and ride out. Halfway across the meadow, Waks raises her hand. We halt and gather round her.

“Over the next two hours, we will climb to almost 8,000 feet [more than 2,400 metres], the highest point on the trail,” she says. “And we’ll start turning back toward the estancia. It is our tradition to ride this section in silence.

“We want you to absorb this moment and to be fully present for a trail that will command your full attention.”

Over the next two hours we pass a massive scree slope and go over the spine of another high pass, then cross a trail that is half the width of Rolo’s load. It drops off on one side farther down than I care to imagine. Finally, after one last brutal climb, we stand on what feels like the top of the universe.

One final run

Four days later, our last, three-hour ride begins early from Ranquilco’s courtyard. Dirt covers every inch of my clothes and gear. It will take a week of scrubbing before my hands look anywhere near clean. Jen Billock, who trailed behind tentatively when all this began, has her horse trot up to the lead.

Over the final kilometres, Waks, Young and I ride at the back of the group, savouring this last stretch of trail. Before the final rise, before the grassy expanse surrounding Buta Mallin appears, Waks suggests we three hold back even farther. “How about one final run?” she says with a smile.

“Yip, yip, yeeow!” We push our horses into the lovely three-beat rhythm of a canter. We sit deeply in our sheepskin-covered saddles, shoulders back. Our bodies are loose, at ease in our own skin, just three badass gauchas in northern Patagonia.

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